In one of his letters, Alain-Fournier, author of Le Grand Meaulnes, wrote, “I have loved those who were so strong and so visionary that they seemed to create around them an unknown world.” One hundred years after its publication, Fournier’s own mysterious domain still beckons.
In 1913, two French writers published books about recapturing the past. One of them, Marcel Proust, wrote the five-volume novel À la recherche du temps perdu, a landmark of 20th century French literature. The other, Henri Alain-Fournier, is remembered for Le Grand Meaulnes, described by the British novelist Julian Barnes as “many things – magical, high-hearted, improbable, coincidence-ridden, operatic – yet never sentimental, because it is true to what we remember about adolescence, with all its hopes and fears and impossible dreams” (“Le Grand Meaulnes revisited”, The Guardian 13 April 2012).
The well-known opening of the novel recounts events already lost in time:
“He arrived at our place one Sunday in November 189… I continue to say ‘our place’, although the house no longer belongs to us. We left the area almost fifteen years ago and we shall certainly never go back.”
Who is the imposing “He” with which the narrative begins? Whose voice are we listening to? Why are we not told the year? Why does the house no longer belong to the family? Why did they leave and why will they never go back? Six questions provoked by just a few lines establishing the atmosphere of mystery that pervades the book.
The description that follows those lines is real enough, but the image at the end sounds a wistful note that recurs again and again, although the reader is not yet anywhere near the “mysterious domain” where Augustin Meaulnes will meet Yvonne – as did Henri Alain-Fournier in real life in the more worldly streets of Paris:
“A long red building, with five glass doors, beneath Virginia creeper, at the very end of the small town; a large courtyard with covered playgrounds and a washhouse, which opened outwards on to the village through large gates; on the north side, reached by a small gate, the main road that led towards La Gare, three kilometres away; to the south and behind, fields, gardens and meadows up to the edge of the village… such is the overview of this place where the dearest and most tormented days of my life were spent – the place from which our adventures set off and to which they returned to break, like waves on a deserted rock.”
The courtyard described above can be seen in a photo that Alain-Fournier took from one of the upper windows of the long red building. It shows his mother and sister clutching parasols and recalls a moment long before Meaulnes sets off for new adventures and long before Fournier set off for the Great War.
The photo (like Le Grand Meaulnes itself) is a memento mori of the kind identified by Susan Sontag in On Photography (1977): “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
Writing a novel probes T. S. Eliot’s observation that, “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future.” Fournier is present in the photo being behind the camera, silently observed by his mother and sister, and preserving a lieu de mémoire that he will later recapture in Le Grand Meaulnes.
The author was killed on 22 September 1914 in a war whose own one hundredth anniversary will soon be heavily marked – an occasion that will give us all pause for thought.